What can you learn from the classics?
Can you learn anything from reading the classics?
As a writer, it's inevitable that you will be told to read "The Classics."
Let's, for the time being, avoid the argument about what makes a book "Classic" and that it was another designation for upper-class Anglo white men in order to separate their distinct class of material from others, and instead focus on the writing of the stories in the Classic genre.
Whether or not we lean into the argument of who has written classics, it is important to read the works of those who have come before us both for an understanding of what writing has done, as well as what writing can do. The story is tens of thousands of years old but a novel is still in its infancy in comparison, dating back possibly to the 1st century in Greece, or the 7th century in India, or the 11th century in Japan, or the 15th century France.
But when talking about "The Classics," it's often presumed to be speaking of works by authors like Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne, or even into the contemporary ages of Hemingway and Faulkner. Yes, we can see the thread that connects these writers beyond their writing, when reading their works, we can also see elements of writing that have stuck with the times, as well as techniques that have long gone out of fashion. And that latter idea is the point.
Writing and stories follow trends.
When told to read the classics, is as much a guide to how writers once wrote as it is to how writers no longer write.
For example, I love to use Dickens's novel Bleak House as inspiration for how I write setting. When we look at the first line of the first paragraph, it can read like a police report meets a weather report.
"London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes-gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest."
 Dickens, Charles Bleak House. London, Bradbury and Evans 1853
The paragraph absolutely gives us a sense of the atmosphere in London at the time, and even introduces us to the character immediately, even if we stray from that character for nearly two pages as Dickens continues with "Fog everywhere."
I love this passage because it immerses us in London; it gives us the stink, taste, and sounds of the city changing with the times. But like the city changing, this type of opening for a story is no longer relevant. It's much like staring a mystery with, "It was a dark and stormy night."
Publishers have evolved because readers have moved on
Readers have moved on from this type of immediate immersion, instead preferring to explore the relationship between characters, including the reader as a character and the relationship forged between protagonist and audience. As with any generalization, it doesn't apply to 100% of stories 100% of the time, but it is a great guideline for the way stories and storytelling has shifted.
In one paragraph and one page of Dickens's Bleak House, you can get information on how to create setting and atmosphere in your story, as well as how not to start a contemporary story. The modern reader wants to get as close to the action as possible, that means starting the story as close to the inciting incident as possible.
That means, don't have the character waking up. Don't have the story start in dialogue. Don't give the character tons of errands to run as part of their typical day, unless something will throw them off of their routine close to page one. The story is not the typical action of the character; the story is what happens that throws the character out of their typical action.
Don't start with the character waking up
Don't have the story start in dialogue. Don't give the character tons of errands to run as part of their typical day, unless something will throw them off of their routine close to page one. The story is not the typical action of the character; the story is what happens that throws the character out of their typical action.
And spending three pages trying to explain what the setting looks like for the reader is equally as alienating as starting the story with a character waking up in bed or offering a soliloquy on "their life before now."
In the end, we can learn plenty from classics and should continue to read them, as long as, as writers, we don't just emulate what they do but understand how their work can inspire or apply to our work, and then explore the way we modernize those techniques to fit with your own unique style.
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